DALE FARM:RUTH KELLY GIVES GREEN LIGHT TO BULLDOZERS
Eileen O'Brien was born at a hospital in Basildon on 8 April, the day celebrated around the globe as Roma Nation Day.
Why," asks Eileen O’Brien, aged six, "are they spending two million pounds to get rid of me? I’m only a little a girl."
As the Siege of Dale Farm goes into its fifth year, that’s the question all the people in this Travellers’ community in rural Essex are asking themselves. A total of one and a half million euro has already been spent by Basildon council on its ethnic-cleaning policy.
But Tory head of the council Malcolm Buckley has a lot more yet in his special anti-Traveller fund. The Conservative- run district council voted itself close on five million euro to clear some one thousand Irish Travellers and English Gypsies from its domains.
In Britain as a whole, some 30 million euro are being expended annually on anti-Traveller measures. Over the past ten years, dozens of private and council-run caravan parks have been closed and thousands of families left to the mercy of the police on roadsides, lay-bys and car-parks. Some have become of the vitims of vigilante attacks, as when a mob of fifty attacked and set fire to caravans in Tamworth recently.
"This has to end," says Cliff Codona, who is one of two UK representatives on the European Roma and Travellers Forum in Strasbourg. "The damage to the 350,000 of our people in this country is both physical and psychological. It's a kind of slow genocide. They want to destroy our way of life."
Eileen is attending the Crays Hill Primary school, which has become an all-Traveller school since local house-dwellers withdrew their children. The school will close-down if Buckley is successful in dislodging the 86 families from what is referred to as the "illegal encampment" at Dale Farm.
Before Travellers made their homes there, most of the one and a half hectares was taken up by a huge scarp yard, containing hundreds of car bodies. Nobody, it seems, complained during the forty years this was in operation, despite the heavy lorries and noise.
The fuss has only started since what is a long-established Gypsy community on Oak Lane was extended eastward to include Dale Farm, doubling the number of plots or yards to one hundred. Rather than an encampment, Dale Farm is a village, with its own private access road and tarmaced streets. Walled gardens and wrought-iron gates surround the chalets and mobile-homes, each with their tourer caravans and trailers.
"This is a model community," says Richard Sheridan. "We’d make it even better if we didn’t have this eviction always hanging over us."
The settlement has grown, says Sheridan, due to an influx of Travellers evicted from other areas. Since the passing of the Criminal Justice Act, the Travelling way of life in Britain has become even harsher. Under Section 62, the police can and will move on caravans from any lay-by or roadside. Yet Ruth Kelly, the new Secretary of State for Communities, has seen fit to give Basildon the green light to bulldoze Dale Farm and drive six hundred people back to a desperate roadside existence. In February, Kelly turned down the final planning appeals on the grounds that it was more important to protect a scrap of so-called "Greenbelt" than safeguard the future of children like Eileen O’Brien.
"What they are doing is throwing this small girl onto the scrap heap," said her auntie, Kathleen McCarthy, who is a governor at the Crays Hill school.
"We own this land but they won’t let us live on it," McCarthy complains. "Where do they expect us to go?"
She points out that of some 30 families who have applied for accommodation as "homeless" in the event of an eviction, not one has been accepted. The council have found excuses and reasons for disqualifying all the applications, claiming that they would be rendering themselves homeless on purpose, as they previously had places on council caravan sites or were tenants in council houses in the English Midlands and elsewhere.
McCarthy is scornful of these excuses and believes racism is at the bottom of the extreme hostility to Travellers. Three hundred people took part in an anti-Traveller march just before Kelly’s ruling, and some 7,000 have signed petitions against the presence of Travellers in the area.
Worse still, racial abuse is becoming more common as the siege is prolonged. Twelve-year- old Patrick Egan, whose uncle owns the original and legal Dale Farm property, was out with two friends when they were stopped and insulted by some Basildon skinheads.
They shouted "Pikey" at Patrick and he took a swipe at one. The next thing they knew an Essex police helicopter was on the scene and giving chase to them. They were compelled to run across the dangerous duel-carriage A127 and into the fields close to Dale Farm. Here the helicopter swooped low, forcing the boys to lie on the ground until other officers caught up with them. Patrick who, believe me is a well-behaved boy, was handcuffed and held at Basildon police station overnight.
They were accused of having stolen mobile phones. When this proved untrue and complaints against the police made by their parents, and Bridie Jones of the Irish Travellers Movement 2006, they were released. No charges were brought. None of the youths who had thrown the racial insults was questioned or detained.
Much of the bad feeling has been stirred up by local Tory MP John Baron, who is currently threatening to take legal action against this write for implying that he is prejudiced and acting like a racist. He does not like the term "ethnic-cleaning" used to describe the purpose of his campaign.
It is all about saving the Greenbelt, preventing a fall in property prices and generally preserving this bit of rural Essex for the newly-arrived gentry. But nobody explains why no campaign was ever launched against the presence of the monster scrap-yard at Dale Farm, which the Travellers themselves cleared up.
And nobody wants to talk about the big development on adjacent land at Gardener Lane, where some 800 new homes are to be built as part of the Government’s Thames Gateway programme.
It will entail a new access onto the A127. This road improvement would solve the "highway problem" highlighted in Kelly’s report as the second major reason for turning down the Dale Farm planning appeals.
English Partnerships, a Government Agency, is involved in both the Gardener Lane project and a smaller road improvement on the A13 at Pitsea, on the other side of Basildon. This second site was proposed last year as a possible alternative to Dale Farm by none other than Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott.
It was, needless to say, immediately turned down by Tory bosses John Baron and Malcolm Buckley. They claim it is just as unsuitable as Dale Farm, despite the fact that this is brownfield land, not Greenbelt, and was once used as a legal Travellers’ site.
Basildon, as Kelly admits, has so far failed to say how it intends to cater in future for Travellers. A recent report commissioned by the East of England Assembly says Basildon needs to build or licence 157 additional plots for the Travellers at present forced to live illegally in its area. Undeterred by this attitude, Dale Farm Housing Association, chaired by Richard Sheridan, is putting in a planning application to build a l5-family caravan park on Terminus Drive, Pitsea.
"They will of course turn us down," commented Sheridan. "But we’ll take it on appeal to Ruth Kelly. She will have a second chance to consider our impossible situation."
Sheridan says Basildon has also failed to designate any land for use by Travellers to provide for themselves, as required under the 2004 Housing Act. Several Travellers have purchased land but in each case where this has been identified, the council has obtained injunctions stopping the owners from moving on.
He says another major objection to Dale Farm is its sheer size.
The Sheridans like it big. Along with another community at Smithy Fen, Cambridgeshire, Dale Farm is form them a viable, self-help community where the elderly and the sick can be looked after by those of the younger generation. But as a compromise, he says rather than see their homes destroyed, some Dale Farm residents would be willing to move to Piteas and to a new council caravan site being built at Colchester, about 35 miles away; or to build private yards on land they already Own.
However, apart from breaking up a close-knit clan, Sheridan stresses to the opposition that they are bent on wasting a mountain of public money. Travellers have settled themselves here and to replace Dale farm will cost not just the five million euro for the eviction and ongoing legal fees but another thirty or forty million to a) drive and harass Travellers around the country for the next three years, b) eventually provide accommodation elsewhere.
"It makes as much sense as an insurance company pushing a blind man in front of a bus," says Sheridan.
Dale Farm residents have no intention of giving up without a fight.
They have won the right to a judicial review, which will not be heard until later this year. Lawyers for the Travellers will argue, among other things, that an eviction is likely to traumatise children like Eileen and would be an infringement of Article 8 of the Human Rights Convention, which guarantees the integrity of family and home life.
The local Wickford Primary Health Trust has warned that children and sick persons could be injured during an eviction operation. And a senior Essex Fire and Rescue officer has questioned the conduct of recent evictions carried out for Basildon council by Constant & Co., a bailiff company which specialises in "removing" Travellers.
Constant & Co. has been retained by Basildon and called in to flatten around half a dozen private yards belonging to Travellers, some close to Dale Farm. The main target has been a string of yards at Hovefields Avenue, Wickford. Rather than remove caravans, some have been crushed and set on fire.
The concern is that heavy machinery is being used close to small children, which contravenes health and safety regulations. Media personnel were excluded at one recent eviction "for their own safety" yet children have been forced to vacate caravans and left standing in the path of JCBs and low-loaders.
"What they are doing is ethnic-cleansing" says Father John Glynn, whose parish includes Dale Farm and Oak Lane. "I’m still praying they won’t send in the bulldozers to level all those homes.
At the last election over 700 people voted for the BNP in Basildon and it is feared this will increase in the May local elections. BNP members are involved in the increasingly racist-tainted campaign against Travellers in the area.
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